Public Schools, Teachers, Tenure, Part 2: Rethinking Tenure and the School Principal [8-20-14]


Having had some experience in dealing with tenure issues in higher education, I dare to make a few comments about a tortured and misunderstood topic. In public discourse ‘tenure’ is itself a contested concept, meaning that there is wide disagreement among folk as to what tenure might mean in the context of educational institutions both public and private.

As a starting point for this discussion, I postulate that ‘tenure’ in educational institutions has meant that a teacher/instructor, after a set period of time and after appropriate evaluation of the person’s actual performance in teaching and other specified responsibilities, is granted a protected employment status in which the person cannot be dismissed without ‘due process.’ Herein due process permits two sorts of justified terminations: 1) that the educational institution is in sufficient financial distress that its future is jeopardized if it does not reduce the size of its faculty—called ‘financial exigency’; 2) that the faculty member has committed some gross violations of either school regulations or governmental laws.  

In the absence of either of these justified dismals it easily appears to the public that, once tenure has been granted, the teacher is virtually protected from termination and has thereby become unaccountable for his/her actual ongoing teaching performance. That is the rub in the mind of the public: after just a few years of employment, a teacher enters into a zone of virtual invulnerability to evaluation and termination. Unfortunately, some of the teachers’ unions, in their resistance to critiques of tenure practices, have unhappily created the impression that tenured faculty are in legal fact virtually immune from any further evaluation that might lead to termination.

What the public no longer seems to acknowledge is that a teacher, at all levels of public school education, is peculiarly vulnerable to idiosyncratic critiques by powerful families and other persons in the community concerning what they teach and how they teach it. Without some protection from such critiques, the pressure on teachers to conform to the desires of powerful individuals would subvert the very process of instruction in particular subject matters. The granting of tenure has been found to be the most effective way of protecting teachers from the episodic infelicities of the pressure from any person or factions. Tenure is rooted in the widespread political conviction concerning ‘due process’ for persons accused of some social offense or malfeasance.

Granting that there is larger political arena for these ongoing disagreements about tenure, I want to propose a procedure that should appeal to the teacher’s own sense of academic standards and the need for ongoing but fair accountability.

I propose that everyone accept that teacher performance and accountability is an ongoing reality without temporal limits. That is, negatively stated, there is never a point in time in which a teacher ceases to be subject to evaluation concerning his or her teaching performance as such. The actual criteria used in such evaluations properly are a matter of ongoing and intense discussion in which teachers themselves must play an important role in determining such criteria. Put another way, school faculties properly have a self-interested role in determining what the ongoing criteria are for evaluating their actual instructional performance. It is also the case that every faculty in public schools is also accountable to some non-faculty group, such as boards and trustees of various sorts.

A central issue pivots around what can be called the ‘probationary period’ during which a teacher is non-tenured and is subject to established criteria as conditions for being tenured. In higher education this probationary period is usually about six years. In public schools it is often much shorter, mostly about 3 years. It is also appears that among public schools there is wide variation in the criteria and the processes of evaluation of teachers in the probationary years. Hence, the general public’s impression that after three years of employment a teacher is granted that sort of tenure that includes immunity from being terminated, except for extreme malfeasances.

The following comments pertain to a proposal for rethinking tenure in public schools:

1. Except in rare cases, the normal probationary period for new teachers should be extended from three to six years at which time the teacher can be granted tenure or rejected for tenure or in some cases given a terminal seventh year for a variety of reasons.

2. The criteria for granting tenure may have some local variations but should pivot around such considerations as: a) competence in instruction as evidenced in articulable and measureable command of the subject matter being taught; b) evaluation of instructional skills in relation to identifiable and measureable student learning; c) capacity to relate cooperatively with other teachers and administrators; d) the teacher’s own firm and articulate sense for the professional dignity of the grade-level appropriate instructional process.

3. The tenure committee must include: a) at least two tenured teachers from the same school and preferably three; b) a teacher beyond the local school who has proven competence in teaching the age-appropriate students; c) the school principal. It would be conceivable that a school board might appoint another person of competence and interest to the tenure committee. Note well: the school principal is included in such a way as to recognize the importance of the principal’s administrative leadership in attracting and retaining teachers of competence. It would not be unreasonable that such tenure granting by approved by an appropriate governing board.

4. Once granted tenure, a teacher will be subject to review every six years along similar lines and criteria by a faculty review committee that would be empowered to gather specific data, pertaining to the teacher’s ongoing competence in subject-matter and teaching skills and student learning. The first duty of the review committee is to provide a written and verbal assessment of the teacher’s overall skills as an instructor of the age-appropriate students and the teacher’s informed competence in the subject matter of the course or courses. And such review committee could recommend the following types of actions: a) approval of the teacher for another six years of appointment; b) approval of continuation with specific instructions concerning areas of teaching that need improvement; c) approval for three years under strict supervision and specified improvements, subject to another review in three years. Note: the review committee would not have the power to recommend immediate withdrawal of tenure and the termination of the teacher. Such could be recommended after the three-year strict supervision review.

The virtue of this tenure process and continuing faculty review is that it protects teachers from that sort of criticism that is rooted in interests alien to the actual processes of teaching and educating. Further, it does provide identifiable criteria for the evaluation of faculty that are properly internal to our best judgments about the nature of successful teaching and learning. This process also relieves teachers of the burden of suspicions that they received a tenure that was unrelated to demonstrated success in teaching.

In short, my proposal has these positive features: 1) it extends mandatory tenure review from three to six years, thus allowing adequate time to observe and evaluate the essential instructional skills of a new teacher; 2) such tenure review is a professional review by the teacher’s peers and the appropriate administrative person; 3) it clearly acknowledges that the granting of tenure is not to be understood as a life-time guarantee of employment independent of peer review and judgment; 4) it identifies a process of continual faculty review and conversation and judgment that, if well explained and practiced, should calm the community and political critics that worry about a faculty becoming unaccountable to the larger social order.

I must emphasize again that the hiring of school principals who are themselves skilled teachers with high academic standards and eager to recruit and maintain and take delight in a faculty imbued with an ambition for teaching the young persons who are their students, is essential to achieving a competent and stimulating educational environment. All of us have had the experience of school principals whose only skill was student discipline or being compliant to an overbearing superintendent.

So, to emphasize this role of the principal, there is no position in a school system, including that of the superintendent, more important than the school principal and his or her appetite for recruiting, supporting, and evaluating highly skilled teachers.

And to put this in the right perspective, there is no role for a school system superintendent more important than recruiting, attracting, and supporting highly skilled principals.

Finally, such faculty review policies are needed in order to quell the common assumption among the larger society that teachers basically obtain life-time tenure by virtue of continual employment of three years not dependent on informed review of teaching skills.

Hence, establish a tenure granting policy tethered to a periodic review and appoint principals with intelligence and the administrative skills and desire to recruit and develop a strong, perhaps even an elite faculty, and we might get back on the road to regaining the respect for public education that is essential for a successful restoration of excellence in education.

Finally, these proposals will fail, even if attempted to implement, if it remains the case that public school teachers are paid such low salaries that competent persons with self-esteem and ambition will refuse to submit to such impoverishing salaries!

And yes, there are those sociopolitical issues of race and poverty that loom over public education, but which public education, by its very essence or origination, is aimed to overcome, or at least diminish its hold on the young students on their way to adult citizenship.



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